Earlier this week, I took my class on one of our usual field trips. We travelled about 60 miles of two-lane roads through sparsely populated country. There’s nothing like driving over miles and miles of two-lane road without seeing another car to help you think about place. I wasn’t day dreaming, I was driving carefully while re-observing the familiar landscape.
We passed through three distinct landscapes. One was the clay lake plain, dominated by open hay fields. Another was closely managed jack pine forest – essentially variously aged patches of jackpine. The third was aspen, spruce, fir forests that have grown up after heavy logging of decades ago. All of these landscapes are attractive in their own way, all show the signs of extensive human activities, and all inspire a sense of place for me. Part of that sense is that they the fields and forests are currently well-managed and thus engender positive feelings about the human activities.
In this case, the sense of place isn’t about a specific spot, it’s a more general context, in this case the landscape and the people in that landscape.
When thinking of landscapes as places, some people might think of idealized settings. Small villages interspersed in rolling hills of forest and farmland patches. A cluster of houses facing a harsh coastine. Snowcapped peaks in the background of broad valleys. Miles of open Great Lakes beaches. Those are all great landscapes, but probably for most of us, they’re places to see on a vacation. Our everyday landscapes are cities and towns. Our neighborhoods may be iconic, rows of brownstones with people sitting on their porches talking with passers-by. It may be a downtown setting, it may be apleasant subdivision with people on their daily strolls. Or it’s just your plain old everyday neighborhood made special by your memories of it and your interactions in it, kept attractive and tidy by people who care about such things.
People round out the context. I asked a friend of writer-type colleague of mine who s to put together something about his sense of place regarding our town. He said “ all I can think of to say is that it’s a place with lots of nice people who help each other out.” That actually says it pretty well. Talk of sense-of-place should incorporate the context people create through their positive interactions. People who do awful things can make an otherwise ideal physical landscape not worth living in; people who do great things can help make an otherwise ordinary landscape well worth living in.
I grew up in Kansas. I like prairies and plains. I get a special feeling standing on a high point, viewing a distant horizon in each direction. No longer in the plains, I rely on the Great Lakes to provide that visual outlet for me. I’m not sure I’d like to live deep in the woods and have my visual sweep so limited. When our relatives began visiting us after we moved up here, we’d ask them ‘what did you see on your way up?’ They’d only half-jokingly reply ‘we couldn’t see anything, too many trees in the way.’ Likewise my students from up here who end up traveling out to the plains and prairies say ‘I couldn’t see anything, it was all just open country.’